Research and Reflections

We’re Bullish on Bookworms

A reflection on the free Bookworms ELA curriculum for K-5

Curriculum plays a central role regarding what students are taught. Bolstered by emerging research about the “curriculum effect,” we’re in the midst of a curriculum renaissance that can point the way toward greater student achievement. In recent years, a number of vendors—including respected nonprofits—have developed curricula that are tailor-built to both state standards and the latest research on how to accelerate student literacy and learning gains. Posts in this blog series will examine curricular products we at Student Achievement Partners regard highly, including American Reading Company, Bookworms, Core Knowledge, EL, and Wit and Wisdom. Stay tuned!

Finding the right high-quality curriculum for your school is something of a quest. We always recommend that you turn to rating sites like EdReports or the Louisiana Believes reviews for guidance. But there will sometimes be curricula in the not-yet-reviewed-by-EdReports category that look promising, that are worth a close look.

We’re no Lancelot and we certainly don’t have a holy curriculum grail to offer, but if your quest led you to the second edition of Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing, we think you’d be justly rewarded for your choice. It provides a superb literacy foundation and exceeds expectations when you look at its ease of use, affordability, and its proven results with students. The first edition of the curriculum, which lacked a strong writing component, understandably missed points in its EdReports review, but author Sharon Walpole and the Open Up Resources team have just completed an extensive expansion of the program and the EdReports review of this new version is forthcoming early in 2019.

Readers of this blog know that our first priority when looking at a program is to focus on what is essential to reading and writing proficiency. Will students acquire the essential foundational skills necessary to be successful readers? Do they have multiple opportunities to closely read complex texts to learn how to be successful at extracting meaning from what they read? And are they offered the necessary volume of reading and writing required to build a broad knowledge base and strong vocabulary skills?

Yes. Yes. And yes. The second edition of Bookworms, being distributed by Open Up Resources, deserves high praise for meeting all these expectations in fresh and impressive ways.

Bookworms foundational skills program is research-based. It guides students systematically in decoding the spelling sound patterns in English—essential for becoming a fluent reader. Every student is regularly diagnosed to determine her phonological awareness and decoding and fluency levels. Then, during the Differentiated Skills Block, the program provides each student with particular instruction and materials, including decodable text sheets as needed (regardless of grade level). Addressing older students’ skill deficits is one reason for the remarkable growth Bookworms districts are experiencing. Another is that all students, those who are fluent at grade-level work and those who aren’t yet, are encouraged to read widely, freely choosing texts from the classroom library. Every child gets what he or she needs.

Bookworms also deserves praise for its approach to close reading. Struggling readers traditionally have not been allowed to experience reading grade-level rich complex texts, but Bookworms engages all students in reading grade-appropriate text multiple times daily for different purposes. This includes shared reading and the continuance of interactive read alouds up through grade five—of value for all, but particularly helpful for struggling readers.

What else is there to like? A high volume of reading: By the end of the year, depending on grade level, students will have read, been read to, analyzed, and discussed 20 to 35 complete books. Texts are highly-regarded trade literature (many award winning) that grow knowledge, vocabulary and foster a love of reading. Titles include, Are You My Mother?, Midnight Express, Because of Winn Dixie, When Marian Sang, A Drop Around the World, and Snowflake Bentley.

In lieu of text sets, Bookworms builds knowledge through full length texts. Take Snowflake Bentley, for example. It opens with close-up illustrations of snowflakes in the very first pages. This makes crystal clear—with close reader observation—that no two snowflakes are alike despite their infinite number. Readers learn about Bentley’s motivation to document this phenomenon and understand why. It helps students appreciate the thousands of hours Bentley spent at night (after full days farming) observing snowflakes through a microscope. This positions the reader to learn how painstaking observation and data collection over a long period of time enable Snowflake Bentley to discover that the shape of a snowflake is a function of wind, temperature, and moisture in the air at different elevations, hence the infinite combinations. Building knowledge over the course of a full-length book is as satisfying for children as stitching new knowledge together via a series of conceptually coherent articles, and it’s easy for the teacher to have the knowledge already assembled in a book.

Bookworms does a particularly good job of not overdoing comprehension strategies (especially not introducing them out of context) unlike so many other programs. It sticks with text-specific questions 100 percent of the time, and brief writing assignments at the end of each day’s work reinforce the importance of attending to the text.

Above all else are the striking achievement results accomplished by students who have used Bookworms. In a research study published in the Elementary School Journal, after one year, Bookworms schools gained significantly more than comparison schools in reading comprehension at every grade (3 – 5), and gained significantly more in reading fluency in grades 3 and 5. We know of no other program that has produced results of this magnitude so quickly upon initial implementation.


Reading comprehension mean scores (Lexiles) on the Scholastic Reading Inventory at three time points for grades 3-5 for both groups.

Results like these could not have occurred so quickly unless the program was easy to implement. The research-based instructional protocols are straightforward and are logically connected from one day to the next. Districts with relatively high teacher turnover would benefit from using such a program especially if they have limited dollars for professional development.

The fact that Bookworms is quite affordable cannot be overlooked either: the curriculum is free, and districts need only purchase the full-length texts. Open Up Resources has favorable bulk pricing and Bookworms recommends, and is designed for, pairs of students to share books. While Bookworms does not have built-in benchmark assessments, it recommends teachers use the widely-acclaimed, standards-aligned mini-assessments on www.achievethecore.org.

Bookworms may not be a perfect “fit” for every district. Some may want programs with more coherent knowledge development across grade levels using a more varied mix of texts (articles, primary sources, videos) rather than only full-length works or programs with built-in aligned assessments. But the latest edition of Bookworms aligns well to all of the literacy must-haves, and the stellar student outcomes in remarkably short time in districts using the curriculum persuade us that this will be a curriculum to watch and for districts and schools to carefully consider.

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About the Author: David Liben is a Senior Fellow in the area of Literacy and English Language Arts at Student Achievement Partners. David has taught elementary, middle school and high school students in public and private schools, as well as community college and teacher preparation courses, in New York City and Vermont. David still spends as much time as possible in schools with teachers and children. Together with Meredith Liben, David founded two innovative model schools in New York City - New York Prep, a junior high school in East Harlem, and in 1991, the Family Academy - where he served as Principal and lead curriculum designer. David synthesized the research behind the Common Core State Standards in ELA, and, with his wife Meredith, was part of the research team that determined the complexity levels for the standards. David holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree in school administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.

About the Author: Meredith Liben is the Senior Fellow for Strategic Initiatives at Student Achievement Partners. Meredith has taught and coached in a wide range of settings over the past 35 years. She has taught every grade from kindergarten through grad school and has been collaborating in literacy reform efforts with David Liben for the past thirty years plus in many of these endeavors, including the founding of two innovative model schools in New York City - New York Prep, a junior high school in East Harlem, and in 1991, the Family Academy. Meredith has a bachelor's degree in Classics and Government from Oberlin College and a master's degree and advanced work from the University of Massachusetts and City University of New York.

About the Author: Susan Pimentel is a Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners and was a lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy. She is also a co-founder of StandardsWork, a nonprofit leading the Knowledge Matters campaign. Before her work on the Common Core, Susan was chief architect of the American Diploma Project designed to close the gap between high school demands and postsecondary expectations. Susan’s efforts have been focused on helping communities, districts and states across the nation work together to advance meaningful and enduring education reform and champion proven tools for increasing academic rigor. Susan serves on the English Language Arts work group for the Understanding Language Project of Stanford University and has been working to ensure English language learners are provided full access to instruction aligned to college- and career-readiness standards. Susan has been the lead consultant, content developer, coach, and trainer for seminal federal adult education initiatives for more than two decades, including Standards-in-Action and Promoting College and Career Ready Standards in Adult Basic Education. Her most recent report, co-authored with Ross Wiener of the Aspen Institute, is Practice What You Teach: Connecting Curriculum and Professional Learning in Schools. Susan served two terms on the National Assessment Governing Board that advises on the nation's report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). She became vice-chair of the body in November 2012. Susan holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a law degree from Cornell University.